Edwin Longsden Long’s 1875 painting, The Babylonian Marriage Market, is monumental in more ways than one. Firstly, in size: the painting measures 10 feet by 5 feet 8 inches. Secondly, in value: in 1882 it sold for £6,615, at that time a record price for a painting. Thirdly, and most importantly, it provides a window through which the abstract concept of the rise of patriarchy comes into focus.
It’s hard to imagine how the goddess-worshipping hunter-gatherer cultures of the Neolithic period gave way to patriarchy. What was that actually like? How did women become completely downtrodden? The Babylonian Marriage Market provides what writer Bobette Buster calls a ‘gleaming detail’, a vivid, heart-wrenching moment that pierces the fog of emotionally distant abstraction.
Herodotus describes these markets in his Histories: “They used to collect all the young women who were old enough to be married and take the whole lot of them all at once to a certain place… An auctioneer would get each of the women to stand up one by one, and he would put her up for sale. He used to start with the most attractive girl there, and then, once she had fetched a good price and been bought, he would go on to auction the next most attractive one.”
The stage was eventually reached when a woman received no bids, i.e. no man thought her desirable enough to pay for. As all women had to be under male control, the authorities stepped in and offered money as well as the bride.
Imagine for a moment being one of the women in Long’s painting—perhaps the second woman from the left, who stares into a hand-mirror whose reflected light plays on her pensive face, unsure if she is desirable or whether she’ll be sold to a man whose only interest is her dowry.
The women wait for the nerve-wracking—and life-altering—experience of being auctioned in their own ways. Why do they await their fate so passively, perhaps even expectantly? Because their laws require it, or the men will become violent? I doubt it. Brave women throughout history have shown no fear of either.
I suggest another mechanism: trauma. I recently made the painful discovery that the entire feminine aspect of my being was traumatised at a core level.
I checked with some female friends who have done deep clearing. They concurred with the suggestion that, since the rise of patriarchy, the feminine in all its forms has been suppressed, repressed, shamed and demonised through some form of trauma.
The word ‘trauma’ is most closely associated with highly impactful moments like traffic accidents. Yet trauma has another side to it, something that has come into focus through soldiers returning from war zones characterised by the threat of suicide attacks and roadside bombs: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD first emerged during World War I as ‘shell shock’, referring to soldiers who ceased to function under the stress of being shelled. The term remains singularly appropriate: those who are traumatised often retreat into their shells, becoming numb to their own ill treatment, submissive and rudderless.
And, as is now increasingly recognised, if untreated the effects of PTSD can be transmitted from one generation to another through epigenetic inheritance. The traumatisation of the feminine continues to this day in our sex-negative society.
It’s easy to see the women in Long’s painting being traumatised by their ordeal until it became a socially accepted custom that no one dared—or even wanted—to challenge. History shows us that, by some means, not only all women but also the feminine aspects of men (emotions and sexuality) became subject to strict cultural taboos that ultimately became embedded in human genetics. Was it a form of trauma? The better we understand humanity’s emotional descent into patriarchy, the better we can figure our way out of it.